When the horde of Democratic presidential candidates meets for the first debate later this month, I’ll be watching to see how they handle an especially charged political buzzword. Not the “i” word (impeachment), but the “s” word — socialism. Calls for a living wage, health care for all, Bernie Sanders’s free college tuition, and Elizabeth Warren’s “economic patriotism” industrial policy may enthrall the left, but they also stir reaction. “Democrat lawmakers are now embracing socialism,” President Trump told “USA”-chanting supporters at a political rally. “We believe in the American dream, not in the socialist nightmare.”
Socialism has long evoked pushback in America. Socialism, warned a much earlier coalition of Republican and Democratic party leaders, is un-American, embraces doctrines “imported from foreign countries,” and threatens traditional marriage, organized religion, and other basic American values. Those comments weren’t made on Fox News last week, but in 1898 in my hometown of Haverhill, after it made former shoe worker and union activist John C. Chase the nation’s first elected Socialist mayor. Haverhill also elected Socialist city councilors and aldermen and sent two Socialists to the State House. I didn’t learn about this local history while attending Haverhill public school decades ago, and even now, few Bay Staters know that Socialist candidates also fared well in Holyoke, Amesbury, Brockton, Georgetown, Chicopee, and elsewhere more than a century before Burlington, Vermont, felt the mayoral Bern.
The local and national flirtation with socialism stalled with World War I, rebounded during the Great Depression, then retreated again with Cold War red baiting. With extreme inequality again creating momentum for socialism in American politics today, a look back to the issues Chase pursued — and the rhetoric he did not — offers lessons for a Democratic Party trying to balance loud calls for systemic change with wariness about getting too far ahead of the American electorate.
Times were different when Chase and his counterparts were elected. They were part of an official Socialist Party, not left-leaning Democrats. They campaigned before an all-male electorate (women could not vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920). They did not have to contend with a social media Babel labeling them before they could define themselves.
But times were also similar, especially in economic frustration. A deep depression had racked the nation between 1893 and 1897, helping fuel labor activism and a strong progressive movement. I learned about Chase and other Haverhill Socialists, including the charismatic James F. Carey, while researching an 1895 Haverhill shoe strike (dubbed “the crusade of the women” by a local paper) that thrust local Socialists into a popular spotlight. That job action, like the iconic national Pullman strike a year earlier, was triggered by economic hardship and poor working conditions.
Today’s economy is comparatively strong, but the economic divide is outright Grand Canyonesque. Today’s calls to tax the rich more to pay for social and other services could be right from a speech by Eugene Debs, who founded the Social Democracy of America party in 1897. Speaking of then and now, that party almost immediately split into warring factions, with a compromise-averse, more doctrinaire left wing challenged by more pragmatic moderates. Sound familiar?
The views of Debs, Chase, Carey, and other American Socialists were shaped less by Karl Marx than by Chicopee Falls native Edward Bellamy, author of Looking Backward, the best-selling 1888 novel that envisioned a Utopian socialist America in the year 2000. Chase balanced ideology with practicality in his 1899 inaugural address: As mayor, he would support the principles of socialism, he said, but only “in so far as they may be applicable to a municipality.” His focus was progressive and decidedly good government: an eight-hour day and better wages for city workers, more honest and transparent contracting, public works jobs for the unemployed, lower gas prices, and public parks, clean streets, and other services and benefits today generally taken for granted. Socialists who were ideological purists dismissed this as “gas and water socialism.” But gas and water won elections; ideology did not.
The late-1890s Socialists also tapped into a frustration that Donald Trump would seize: simmering voter anger at out-of-touch, inefficient, or corrupt government. While campaigning for Socialists running for office in Chicago in 1910, Chase invited “every voting workingman” to decide whether to let “the same old corrupt machines in power to legislate against him.”
Ironically, the economic fears that helped elect Chase also worked against him and other Bay State Socialists. Their electoral success proved short-lived as establishment parties regrouped and stoked fears that socialist proposals such as the eight-hour workday — however mainstream they now seem — threatened fiscal and social ruin. Like voters now, voters in 1898 probably did not really know just what “socialism” meant. To some today, the word implies economic nirvana, or at least European welfare capitalism; to others, it’s the pathway to Venezuelan hell. No matter — Trump and the Fox News chorus will undoubtedly cast the “socialist” hex on the Democratic nominee anyway.
The 1890s playbook of the nation’s early Socialist officeholders had a strategy that could work today. By being more incremental than dogmatic and focusing on issues that resonated locally, they appealed to a wider swath of voters, not just the converted. Americans could gain mightily from many of the policy proposals now in the Democratic primary air. The challenge is to get elected in order to implement them. And that starts with branding good policies with the right “s”: solutions, not socialism.